Copyright © 2016 by James Shea
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Cover design by Daniel Garner
Book design by James Shea
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
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It’s not easy to condense over ten thousand years of human civilization into a readable overview. I knew that going into this, and I hope this serves as your fair warning as you begin reading this book. I’ve done my best to both provide a basic understanding of how cultures are built as well as picking interesting, atypical branches of societal development.
My goal is to give you, my reader, both a core understanding of societal development, and a broad toolbox of ideas for developing more specific cultures in your own writing. Think of this book less as a definitive guide to cultures and more as a “tasting menu”, exposing you to as many distinct ideas as possible. My goal is to expose you to the breadth of human societies as well as to give you a toolbox of “core ideas” to understand how cultures work.
Before we dive into the actual content, it’s important to establish: , and ? “Culture” refers to the traits that define groups of people. The concept has its roots in animal behavior; humans sometimes think of themselves as “above” animals, but in many ways human behavior is merely a more complex and organized version of what animals do.
Every animal has a distinct social structure, whether it’s a family-based carnivore pack or a larger grazer herd. However, some animals display more intricate patterns worthy of note. Chimpanzees, for example, show many “proto-human” traits such as a tiered society with individual chimpanzees showing deference to those above and contempt for those below. They have even been observed waging at least one “war”, an organized long-term effort to destroy an enemy group marked by apparently needless cruelty and aggression.
Humans can build and farm – but so can animals, in their own way. In addition to the construction of complex tunnels and burrows, ants are capable of “farming” aphids. The ants protect the aphids and lead them to plants that the aphids eat. In exchange, the ants eat honeydew that the aphids release; the ants even “milk” the aphids with their antennae in order to force them to release it.
Some animals are capable of distinct language. While all animals “communicate”, it was long thought that the nuances and complexities of true language were the realm of humans alone. However, it has been noted that prairie dogs are capable of communicating in a way that implies precise detail; not only simple messages like “danger”, but a more complex series of chitters that distinguish details like the nature of the threat, their size, and even their color. Furthermore, the prairie dog language also has regional dialects, deepening its comparison to human language.
Even artistic sense is not limited to humans. Male Bowerbirds, found in New Guinea, attracts mates by making a complex nest of brightly-colored bits and baubles. These nests can be so complex that they even include elements of forced perspective – an element that makes them far more desirable to female Bowerbirds.
Humanity’s only apparent “unique” traits involve self-awareness, which leads to concepts like religion and philosophy to try to explain why we’re here, what the point is, and so on. Yet even these things are only known because humans are capable of communicating with each other; without access to an animal’s inner thoughts, it is impossible to know if they feel the same way. We do know that some animals mourn the dead, including elephants, dolphins, apes and whales. So perhaps even spiritual or philosophical thought could be possible.
Most have their root in a prehistoric, proto-human period. The majority of human history existed in a pre-recording state, which meant that humans transmitted knowledge and information solely through direct contact and memory. Information of any kind was passed down through families and communities, but was not recorded for any form of larger consumption. As a result, we do not know who made the first words, or why they made them that way; our understanding of languages usually begins in media res when writing is established, long after the actual origins of the language itself. Knowledge was passed from generation to generation like links in a chain; the process was not always perfect, but in general people maintained the views and traditions of their ancestor. Hence, by the time “prehistory” became “history”, humans had been carrying their traditional values for thousands of years.
For this reason it is difficult to talk about the origins of cultural values except in terms of observing instinctual patterns, i.e. protecting one’s young, social structures, and so on. Specifics like, for example, why a certain sound is associated with a certain concept linguistically are harder to determine. Specifics like why the deification of thunder has a certain root name that is carried on to many descendant cultures. At some level, a line must be drawn where people say “we don’t know”. Still, though, those misty origins do eventually coalesce into more observable patterns, and those are what we will be talking about.
A culture is defined by the ideas it represents and the values it seeks to propagate. Cultures are, in essence, sets of ideas carried from generation to generation. Therefore, in order to discuss cultures, we have to start with what they believe. This is what creates the cultural “core” that all other things – society, art, language, economics, and so on – are built around.
“Values” refer to the things that a culture considers important, which informs things like morality, purity, and right-vs-wrong. Values establish the criteria by which all other aspects of a culture are shaped and judged. In that way, they can be considered the most important aspect of cultural discussion.
A concept that is important to understand first and foremost is the window of discourse, also known as the Overton window. In short, there is a “core moral set”, often described as “centrist”, in a given culture. Divergence from that core morality exists, but only to a limited extent. Ideas that exist near the core are seen as normal, and the further you get from the core, the more “unworkable” or “radical” they seem. People will still hold those ideas on some level, but will be shunned by society if they voice them. Any society will have ideas that seem “unthinkable” to them as a whole. However, there will still be an array of what is acceptable to them, and people will be relatively free to voice those sentiments without global opposition. All the things we discuss about cultural values and norms exist on a scale. There will be divergences that are acceptable and divergences that are widely rejected. No culture is truly “absolute”.
The ways that individuals engage with each other is a reflection of society as a whole – whether they feel able to express themselves openly or if they must guard their feelings behind a constant veneer. In order to reconcile the difference between private feelings and public acceptability, the concept of a social facade is common in most societies. In psychological terms, such behavior is called “masking”. In Japan, the word tatemae is used to describe the “mask” itself. As a form of self-censorship, masking is useful at propagating or controlling societal values. Because only “accepted” values can be safely expressed in public, members of the public are led to believe that everyone in their society holds those core values. Those who deviate from the standard are criticized, socially outcast, or otherwise condemned. In this way, the window of discourse is maintained.
Now that the idea of cultural control is laid out, how do we define what a culture’s values are? There are some models we can use to narrow it down. The Inglehart-Welzel cultural map is a graph that displays countries around the world as points on two axes. The first axis is “traditional” vs “secular-rational” values. The second axis is “survival” vs “self-expression” values. The former has to do with deference to customs and authority, importance of religions, and so on. The second has to do with whether the country is rigidly utilitarian or more open to personal freedom. The map has regional correlation for different parts of the world. For example, the “Confucian” countries (China, Japan and South Korea) are secular-rational combined with survival (although Japan leans more towards self-expression). The “Latin” countries, such as Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, are solidly traditional, but in the middle ground of survival-vs-self-expression. The “Protestant” countries, such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, score high in both secular-rational and self-expression.
A limitation of the Inglehart-Welzel format is that it only maps two major issues. However, it does give us a relative starting point for discussion. Cultures are most broadly defined by the values they stand for, as a whole, and the way their societies are shaped exist in conjunction with the pursuit of that core value.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt conducted tests that led to the development of the moral foundation theory. Haidt’s research showed that when people of different ideological sets talked about “moral” behavior, they were applying similar reactions to different stimuli. The six stimuli Haidt identified were liberty, fairness, care, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Self-identified conservatives thought all six were equally important. Liberals and leftists thought that care was more important than all the others, while libertarians polled highest on liberty. All respondents registered strong feelings to their chosen moral values, and all of them identified their feelings as “morality”. It is important to understand that when people, or cultures, talk about “moral behavior”, they are often talking about very different things that provoke similarly strong emotions.
is the emotional response of concern and sympathy for other human beings. Discussions of the sanctity of human life and acts of charity are founded in empathy. Almost all ideologies value protecting one’s in-group: family, friends and people who share ties with you. Low-empathy ideologies limit their goodwill to these types of people alone, expressing contempt for out-group individuals or perceived “moral degenerates”. In modern politics, progressivism is associated with stronger welfare, weaker militaries, and humane treatment of society’s undesirables. By contrast, conservative politics are generally more distrustful and aggressive. Conservatives depict progressives as naive and weak; progressives see conservatives as inhumane and hateful.
In India, the ancient ruler Ashoka the Great built his empire originally on bloody conquest. However, after the particularly cruel conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka repented and became a Buddhist and a pacifist. His empire mandated not only humanitarian care, but even the welfare of animals. His was an example of a high empathy government (in the standards of the day). In contrast, the Middle Empire of Assyria was dominated by cruel punishments and brutal acts of repression even for “good” citizens – who were only considered good as long as they fulfilled their purpose in their aggressive, militaristic society. This is an example of a low empathy government.
reflects the importance of self-expression and self-determination in a given society. Societies with a low level of liberty value will think that one’s own agency is less important than values such as cooperation or obedience. A society based on communal values will curtail the individual’s ability to act economically as a way to ensure equality between individuals. Societies with a high level of liberty value will believe that individual expression and action is more important than collective empathy or deference to government.
Note that a love of liberty does not automatically indicate a hatred for slavery; the Greeks and Americans both built their culture on stated values of freedom, and both allowed slavery because it was the right of individuals to own them. This is a problem with the definition of “liberty” – more freedom for one person can mean less freedom for another. The Greek historian Herodotus described the Greco-Persian Wars as wars of freedom (Greece) vs slavery (Iran). This was despite the fact that Greece openly practiced slavery, whereas Iran at the time had banned it for all but prisoners of war. Herodotus was talking more about the common person’s influence on their government as well as their economic freedom; he described the Iranian citizens as subservient slaves to their imperial overlord. In short, he was only considering the two groups of people that he considered “human”, which is to say landed citizens; actual slaves fell below his own considerations in a discussion of freedom.
is a measure of respect for existing institutions and ideas. It is connected to the concept of things being “sanctified” or “sacred”, as well. Respect for a government-in-power often also falls under tradition, since those governments often derive authority from ideological sources. Different cultures will have different ideas of what falls under the veil of “tradition”, because in most cases “tradition” is defined by values as well as religion. The concepts here are also noted by automatic, “unreasoned” disgust for violations or breaches. Obviously every society has things that provoke disgust, but some countries are more strict than others.
In ancient China, two of the most prominent philosophies were the traditionalist Ruism (commonly called Confucianism) and the pragmatic Legalism. Ruism is defined by obedience to ancestors and moral norms, and has a great number of proper rites and behaviors that show the “proper” levels of respect for one’s ancestors and society at large. In contrast, Legalism was a guide for rulership that encouraged a cynical and adaptable approach to leadership. It focused heavily on organization and management, as well as how to get the best results out of one’s subordinates. Legalism says that a king should detach himself from his subjects and his own emotions in order to guarantee the best results for his country. Both of these philosophies had egalitarian or meritocratic aspects, but Ruism did so because men of value should be recognized regardless of birth, and Legalism did so because it was the most efficient method. Legalism was the leading philosophy of the short-lived Qin dynasty, while Ruism became a major influence around East Asia when it was adopted by the later Han dynasty.
The nexus of these three concepts is the . In essence, a society designs itself around a specific set of objectives, and judges the actions of its inhabitants as being beneficial to, or detracting from, that goal. In short, a society arranges itself to support its goal.
For example, feudal societies are built around a desire to maintain a certain type of order – the nobles rule and fight, the commoners farm and craft, and the priests maintain the necessary rituals to keep the divine appeased. The goal of a society like this is to preserve itself in that state. Tradition, therefore, takes precedence, while liberty is not valued and is therefore low. Empathy is somewhere in the middle based on the values of the ruling class. Religious societies similarly maintain a high tradition, but liberty and empathy depend on the tenets of the religion in question.
A democratic society values individual liberty and freedom as good ends in and of themselves. Tradition can range in importance; it is entirely possible for a liberty-focused society to have conservative moral values. Empathy has similar variability; a democratic society can be built on respect for humanity, or it can justify abuse of the weak by the strong as a natural result of the freedom of strong individuals. A libertarian society skews high-liberty, low-tradition, and low-empathy for just such a reason.
A communal society is based on the idea of restricting personal freedoms and economic mobility in order to ensure that all members of the community are taken care of. As a result, they tend to be medium-to-high empathy (depending on how they view outsiders) alongside low liberty. Tradition is variable depending on the type of commune; some are religious in nature, while Marxist-derived communes are atheist.
A fascist society is high-tradition, low-empathy and low-freedom. This is because its goal is to create a self-justifying military machine by appealing to culture clashes. Fascism is centered around a society banding together to stand against out-groups, and by definition, its members must subvert their own independence and well-being in order to support the group. As a result, fascism is the enemy of libertarianism and liberalism (because it takes away freedoms), but also the enemy of empathic ideologies (because it is inhumane and permanently hostile).
Beyond the core values that define a culture, there are many issues that affect subtler matters. These are traits that affect the ways in which people go about their lives, determining proper behavior and “correct thinking”.
is a concept encompassing both personal reputation and morality. Honor exists at some level in almost every society, although the more formal and “tradition-based” a culture is, the more focus there is on it. In China, honor is tied in with the concept of mian, often translated as “face”, which is a measure of social standing, prestige, and due respect. The Romans made references to “dignitas” (from which English gets the word dignity) and “gravitas” to reference similar concepts – not only one’s moral standing, but also how seriously one is taken as a respectable individual.
Honor reflected many parts of a society’s values, and was generally used as a measure of compliance with those values. An individual who lived by society’s traditions and morality would gain a positive reputation, while a person who eschewed them would gain a negative one. This was both practical and ideological; the practical aspect was the desirability of living and working with someone who held these desired traits, and the ideological aspect was increasing conformity and preferring like individuals.
Honor was not only about individuals, though. The honor of the individual affected the family, past and present. Therefore, maintaining honor was often a communal task; punishing dishonorable individuals before they tainted the family as a whole was perceived as a necessary task. In some societies, a dishonored individual would commit suicide in order to clean the stain from their name. This was especially common in Japan, where it was called seppuku. Even in modern times, suicide rates are very high in Japan, and it is culturally “tolerated” as a response to dishonor. Suicide amongst students is a noted problem in both Japan and Korea (specifically South Korea) due to the high expectations and grueling demands placed upon individuals.
An extreme incarnation of familial honor policing is honor killing, found in Rome, the Arab world, India, China, the Mesoamerican cultures, Albania and the Balkans. Honor killing was the killing of a family member by other members of the family, incited by dishonorable or shameful actions by the victim. In many cases these kinds of killing were patriarchal in nature, targeting a woman for refusing to participate in an arranged marriage, being the victim of rape, or otherwise deviating from social norms. Men could also be victims for reasons such as homosexuality or even refusing to participate in honor killings themselves. The purpose of honor killings was to maintain the family’s status in the community; knowingly abetting dishonor would bring penalties, and redressing the dishonor with violence was often the only way to staunch it.
is a universal concept across cultures, but as many travelers have experienced, different cultures have different ideas of what’s polite and what’s impolite. Failing to meet these standards will be seen as rude at best and insulting at worst. Many customs of politeness are relatively minor, but this doesn’t mean they’re not important. Things like “how to greet someone” or “how to sit at the dinner table” or “how to talk” or “how much personal space to expect” vary from culture to culture, and when people encounter someone with a different idea about those types of things, the experience can be unnerving.
Formality is a common aspect of politeness. How warmly should people treat each other? How familiarly should they behave? Are they allowed to touch each other, and if so, where? How much emotion should they express? In some places, a detached, emotionless performance is considered socially acceptable. In others, a display at that level would be considered cold or unfeeling. The Chinese philosophy of Ruism was highly formal, with exacting instructions on where people should go and how they should act based on their exact position in society. By contrast, societies such as the Celts or Norse were more relaxed and boisterous.
refers to traditions and expectations about keeping oneself clean and presentable. The image many have of pre-modern life is a world of unwashed individuals, and while this may have been true in some places, it wasn’t universal. Societies that put a great deal of importance on bathing include the Romans, who had large public baths, the Norse, who bathed at least once a week, and the Japanese, who used hot spring baths in addition to rivers or lakes. One of the oldest civilizations, the Harappan culture, based its entire city layout around centralized baths and running water. Others include the Indians, Chinese, Aztecs, and Greeks (who also had public baths). An alternative to bathing was the sauna, which used steam for cleansing purposes. This was used by the Finns, the Koreans (hanjeungso), the Karo people of Indonesia (oukop), and the “Turkish Bath” used throughout the Muslim world.
Medieval Europeans bathed less frequently than their Norse neighbors or Roman predecessors, but there is still documented evidence of regular bathing among medieval peoples, including public bathhouses in 13th century Paris. The decline in bathing (and the rise of the “smelly European” stereotype) came in the 16th century. The practice came under suspicion after the Black Plague; the philosopher Erasmus commented in 1526 that public baths were highly fashionable at the turn of the century, but because of “the new plague”, they had been essentially eliminated. Another influencing factor was religious; bath-houses were often host to prostitution and sexual behavior, and were thus seen as (ironically) “unclean” by religious reformers.
Perfumes and other scented items were sometimes an addition to cleanliness, and sometimes a replacement for it. The Egyptians made perfumes using plants mixed in oil and cleaned themselves using either natron (naturally occurring hydrated soda ash) or swabu (a scented soap-paste made from ash or clay). Perfume makers are also recorded in ancient Mesopotamia and India. In Rome, women apparently made common usage of perfumes and other cosmetics; male writers of the period all but unanimously denounced perfumes, with only the poet Ovid expressing any notably positive feelings about it. With the rise of Christianity, perfume became relatively unpopular, but it was preserved in the Arab world. With the rise of Islam, perfume became increasingly popular, as cleanliness was an important tenet, and the weekly application of perfume was mandatory if it was available.
Following the crusades, and thus cultural exchange with the Muslim world, the nations of medieval Europe began to rediscover perfuming. The first medieval European perfume was made in Hungary, and was known as ‘Hungary Water” for that reason. After the decline in bathing mentioned earlier, perfume was used to take its place. This continued well into the Industrial era, although ultimately the preference of scents to true hygiene caused many health crises.
is an important issue in many cultures. Hospitality may invoke certain rights and expectations both for the host and the guest. The reason for this is often a question of mutual cooperation, or maintaining some sort of neutral ground. In ancient Greece, the obligation of good behavior by both host and guest was called xenia. In Homer’s classic The Iliad, one of the reasons that the Trojan War came to pass was because the Trojan prince Paris had violated xenia by kidnapping his host’s wife. This was considered an insult to Zeus, king of the gods, because he was the patron of the concept. Xenia shares traits with the Indian concept of atithi devo bhava, which translates to “the guest is equivalent to God”. Both traditions are based on the premise that gods walk among mortals, and all guests (and hosts) should be treated as if they were potentially divine. Among the Bedouin peoples, the principle of diyafa says that hospitality must be extended, even to enemies, for a certain amount of time. The Pashtun people, the majority population of Afghanistan, exhibit a similar principle called melmastia. Generosity is seen as a virtue in both cultures, and an opportunity to display it is usually welcomed. In ancient Irish culture, hospitality (oígidecht) was important for all members of a community, but a particular class, the briugu, must go even further. In the legal code Uraicecht Becc, the briugu is described as an individual with a certain amount of wealth. A person at this level of wealth received an amount of privilege in society akin to a nobleman, but in exchange they were legally obligated to provide “limitless” hospitality to anyone who asked.
The expectation of can also lead into some more complicated social mores. In Iran, the concept of tarof is a form of humility that all members of society are expected to engage in. Tarof essentially means being overly indulgent when dealing with another person, with the expectation that the other party will turn down the offer. Here is an example with a host and a guest: the host would be incredibly generous, perhaps more generous than they could afford, with the expectation that the guest will politely turn it down. The pattern repeats itself until the “true intentions” of both parties can be established. This system can be abused if the second party does not turn down the inflated offer, which the first party did not intend to fulfill anyways. Accepting the offer without refusing first is considered impolite. Similar systems exist in other places, such as Italy (fare i complimenti) and China.
is considered important in many societies, especially poorer ones. Amongst the Hebrew peoples, the concept of bal taschchit is used to condemn wasteful destruction or resource expenditure. In Japan, a similar concept is called mottainai, and the word is used as an exclamation to decry wasted material (in a way similar to “what a waste!” in English). In India, the phrase jugaad is used to describe “frugal innovation”, or making useful and functional items out of recycled parts. Jugaad is most commonly expressed in modern India, but some adherents claim the concept is as old as Indian culture. In certain religions, such as the Christian Society of Friends and Puritan sects, frugality is emphasized as a way to ensure that the excess resources will be spent on the poor and needy, rather than wasted on frivolities.
The inverse of frugality is . This is a phenomenon where wealth is spent on unnecessary luxuries purely to develop one’s image and prestige. While the specific terminology originated out of the noveau riche of the Industrial Revolution, the concept exists throughout history. The display of luxury items, fancy clothes and expensive decorations serves as a way to signal one’s power and influence. This prestige was referred to as sign value by philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In societally important positions, such as nobility or clergy, such displays can be important in order to maintain the proper gravity that the position deserves.
Different religions have different views on material wealth. Christian dogma traditionally identifies the love of wealth, or Mammon, as the “root of all evil”; Christ encouraged his followers to give their possessions to the poor, both as a moral act and to show that the rewards of heaven are more important than any earthly luxuries. In Islam, several of Mohammed’s wives and followers adopted voluntary poverty in their lives. The Sufi sub-sect of Islam follows their example, while mainstream Islam are less concerned with it. Buddhism denounces all material attachments, so the idea of ostentatious displays of wealth goes against its core precepts. In contrast, the Hindu precept of artha sees material gain and wealth as a positive nature of existence, alongside virtue and sensual pleasure. It must be supported alongside morality – and greed without morality leads to sin – but wealth is considered positive when the holder is virtuous.
Some social standards are dependent on gender and sexual identification. Whether it’s the “standard” split of men and women, or a more complicated alternative, most societies have different expectations of people based on their gender.
“Gender” is the set of behaviors primarily, but not necessarily, associated with physical sexual characteristics. This includes both stereotypes and performative behaviors; the former are assumptions about individuals made based on a culture’s ideas of their sex and gender, while the latter are societally-mandated actions that are enforced by ostracism or punishment. For example, a belief that women are emotional is a stereotype, whereas a man being mocked or mistreated for being weak is related to performative behavior. The collection of traits attributed to, and enforced on, gendered individuals are called .
Many societies were built on a patriarchal model. In such societies, men did everything considered to be of importance or consequence (i.e. earned a living, participated in politics, went to war). Women had a subservient role, limited social mobility, and less control over their own lives. Men, therefore, were expected to be confident and in control, while women were expected to be more meek and obedient. However, there were still variations even within such societies. Among the Anglo-Saxons, there were restrictions on women’s sexuality and a disregard for their feelings, but at the same time women were able to own property, marry who they wished, and run businesses. However after the invasion of the Normans, women in England lost many rights. This was partially because, in Norman society, land ownership was given by lords and kings in exchange for military service. Women were seen as incapable of military service and thus unfit to own land. With their importance reduced, women lost many of their other rights as well. This change illustrates the potential leeway and diversity within a patriarchal model.
In some European systems, women were able to inherit noble titles if there were no eligible men in the immediate line of succession. This is called an agnatic-cognatic succession system. Some examples of this came from societies where the woman in question would be married, and her husband would control the lands. However, there are cases where the husband would die, and the heiress would regain direct control. This was the case for Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) as well as Æthelflæd of Mercia (870-918), who were both highly influential rulers. In other cases, noblewomen would be granted lands more directly, such as Elvira and Urraca, two of the five children of Ferdinand I of León. Although it was rare, women could sometimes lead alongside their husbands; this was true of Joanna of Flanders (1295-1374) and Sikelgaita of Apulia (1040-1090).
In the society of the Haudenosaunee, women were concerned with internal issues (affairs at home, family, and crafting), while men dealt with external ones (hunting, trading and war). While this setup isn’t necessarily unique, women were given more power and control in their spheres of influence than many other cultures. Women were considered the “keepers of culture”, maintaining and defining the values of the tribe. Women chose the tribal chiefs and monitored them to ensure they fulfilled their role. Women were considered wiser and more practical than men, while men were brought up to be brave and stoic.
For the Minang people of Indonesia, landholding is a female right, and land passes from mother to daughter. Women are expected to stay at home, whereas boys have a comparatively more nomadic lifestyle. At age seven, young boys leave the home to study at the nearest surau, which is an assembly building and temple used for religious instruction. As a teenager, the boy is told to wander the region, learning from his experiences and returning stronger and more knowledgeable. It is for this reason that women are given land rights, since they stay at home for their entire lives while the men do not.
In the culture of the Amazigh (or Berber) people of North Africa, men are primarily tasked with handling herding, while women stay at home and make crafts. Both men and women may lead tribes, and gender equality is a strongly ensconced hereditary value. The Tuareg people are similarly patterned, with a few additional aspects. Firstly, for the Amazigh, men choose women for marriage – for the Tuaregs, it is the other way around. Secondly, in Tuareg society, it is men who are veiled, not women. Historically, this is because the Tuareg men are out in the desert, where face-veiling provides protection against sand and sun, while the women are in the relative safety of home. “Taking the veil” is a rite of passage for the Tuaregs, symbolizing the transition from a boy to a man.
The Mosuo people of southern China are an example of a female-driven society. The Mosuo describe themselves as matriarchal; women head households, run businesses, own land and inherit wealth. Men have relatively few duties (mostly farming and fishing), but are consulted with large decisions and hold certain positions of arguable authority. The Mosuo do not marry, but will change between partners as it suits them to do, or even have multiple partners simultaneously without stigma. Even fathership is not considered a particular concern, as the child is raised by the mother’s family regardless of whether or not the father’s identity is known.
The Norse had relatively traditional gender roles in many ways – men fight and control, women keep the homestead. One particular quirk of Norse society was that sorcery and magic (seidr) were considered to be in the realm of women. Men could practice magic, but it was stigmatized, and in doing so they made themselves effete (or ergi). Sorcery included divination as well as trickery and hexes; sorceress circles were used to connect to the spiritual realm in times of crisis, to ask the gods for guidance. Ironically, the chief god Odin himself was said to be a practitioner of seidr, and in the myths, Loki accused him of being unmanly because of it.
The nomadic Scythians, Sarmatians, and Issedones of central Asia were described by their more civilized contemporaries as possessing egalitarian or matriarchal gender systems. The historians Herodotus and Hippocrates described the Sarmatians as being matriarchal in nature. Unmarried women served as warriors until they’d killed enough foes to earn the right to marry, at which point they would take a sedentary civilian role. Conversely, men were said to be more passive, fulfilling feminine roles in their society. Such observations are coupled with more fantastic observations that may be less true, but it is known that Sarmatian and Scythian women have been found buried with weaponry (the latter more than the former). The Issedones are described only from second-hand accounts; Herodotus provides accounts given to him by Scythians, who describe them as “observers of justice: and it is to be remarked that their women have equal authority with the men”.
The next gender-related issue concerns : who gets to be in charge, and whose family connections are more important. For many cultures the answer to both has traditionally been “the man”, but this is not universal. Determining who is in charge is a question of patriarchy vs matriarchy. Determining whose family line is carried down is patrilineal vs matrilineal descent. In some cases, marriage involves the couple moving near the husband’s family (patrilocal) or the wife’s family (matrilocal). These different categories affect the way that cultures think about the family unit and the role of men and women within it.
Several matriarchal societies were discussed in the previous section due to the distinct gender roles of those societies. Almost every “matriarchal” society has slightly different gender roles than traditional patriarchal societies do, to reflect the fact that women are expected to run things. There are some societies that have more patriarchal gender roles where, for one reason or another, women are expected to “run things” (usually while the men are away). This includes Sparta in Greece and Manipur in India.
Matrilineal societies have a more subtle gender difference compared to full-on matriarchies (although some obviously are both). In a matrilineal society, the mother’s bloodline is what’s important. This grants women a more important role in terms of inheritance and landholding, but does not guarantee them direct control in society (i.e. lawmaking and self-determination). For example, the Akan people of west Africa are ruled by elected male monarchs, the families from which those kings are drawn are matrilineal in nature. It is female descent that determines eligibility to be elected. Similarly, the Guanches people of the Canary Islands were ruled by male kings, but those kings were chosen based on a matrilineal connection to a progenitor queen. Some matrilineal societies that have already been discussed include the Haudenosaunee, Minang, Mosuo and Tuareg peoples. Others include the Ashanti of Ghana, the Soninke of Mali, the Nair of India, the Karen of southeast Asia, and the Navajo and Hopi of the American southwest.
Finally, matrilocality is about clan identification and mobility. Like matrilineality, it is often about which part of the family is considered more important. It plays a subtle but important role in family dynamics; the husband is the “outsider”, and the wife is the “insider”. The daughter is the one who is familiar to the rest of the family, while the husband is the one who must prove themselves and try to fit in. Matrilocal arrangements were most common in societies that also had matriarchal and matrilineal traits.
One common version of this is based on inter-clan or inter-tribe marriage. For the Haudenosaunee, if a marriage was arranged between members of two clans, the husband would go to live with the wife’s clan. There they would live either in their own household or, if they were too young for that, in the household of the wife’s family.
For the Nair people, matrilocality was part of a complex matrilineal household arrangement. The Nair household was called a tharavad, and it held somewhere between 50 and 200 people. The tharavad was headed by the eldest male, the karnavan, who had control over most aspects of the household. However, inheritance was matrilineal, and men of the household who weren’t the karnavan had lower status than the women of the household. Notably, men connected to the family as husbands were only allowed in the household at night, and were made to leave in the morning. For this reason they usually slept in nearby houses. The exact setup is complex and accounts vary, but it is certain that the household was women-centric despite being headed by a man.
In addition to roles for the two traditional genders, many cultures also have a (with a rare fourth as well). This is usually designed for members of one biological sex who wish to fulfill a role outside their traditional associated gender, and plays into expectations of gender behavior just as much as the “standard” two genders.
Many Native American peoples, including the Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, Crow and Navajo, have the concept of a “two-spirit”. These are individuals who are assigned as either gender at birth but who later adopt a special androgynous role. Within different cultural groups, the two-spirits play different roles. For the Yuki people, they are designated as keepers of oral tradition. The Oglala Lakota consider them to have spiritual abilities such as fortune-telling and conferring lucky names on children. The roles and restrictions of a two-spirit depend strongly on the broader gender roles and values of the cultural group. In some groups, true “males” will be humiliated or angered if they are treated as women, but assigned-male-at-birth two-spirits do not suffer any stigma for their own relative femininity.
In India, the term hijra is used to denote male-to-female transgender people (though the modern community prefers the term khwaja sira). Hijras are recognized by the Indian government as a third gender and have a long history in Indian culture, being documented in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Kama Sutra. Hijras perform special roles related to birth and marriage, although their specific purpose is different in different regions of India.
In the Balkan region, “sworn virgins” are a rare “female-to-male” transgender identity. In these cases, a woman swears an oath of celibacy in front of tribal elders, after which she is allowed to essentially live as a man. The privileges granted by this act include performative things such as wearing male clothes, using a male name and sitting and talking socially with men. However, it also includes more substantial actions such as taking on male work and acting as the head of one’s household (usually when living with female relatives). This means that the act of becoming a sworn virgin is sometimes done for what we would think of as “transgender” reasons (i.e. “I feel like the wrong gender”) and sometimes for pragmatic reasons (freedom & independence). In cases where male heirs had died, it was sometimes necessary for a daughter to become a sworn virgin to claim proper inheritance.
A similar rationale existed for the Nandi people of east Africa. The Nandi had relatively rare marriages between women where one woman would ceremonially adopt a male role, with all the privileges and expectations that accorded. The newly christened man would be prohibited from having sexual relations with their wife; they instead had to select a stand-in to actually impregnate her. However, children born of the wife would be treated as the husband’s children, not the children of the actual biological father, the surrogate.
The peoples of Polynesia have differing third-gender roles, such as the māhū of Hawaii, the fakaleiti of Tonga, asog in the Philippines, and the fa’afafine of Samoa. These examples are assigned-male-at-birth individuals given a more feminine role to fill. In the case of the Samoan fa’afafine, boys who display feminine traits and a preference for “female” tasks such as cleaning will often be recognized as fa’afafine. Such individuals exist between masculine and feminine gender roles, primarily fulfilling feminine roles but able to act as a male in certain circumstances.
In Ethiopia, the Amhara people of the highlands used the term “wändarwäräd”, or “male-female”, to describe transgender people historically. According to anthropologist Simon Messing, these individuals were treated as “God’s mistakes”, whose condition was beyond their power to fix and thus tolerated. In the southern region, the Maale people had “ashtime”, who crossed from masculine to feminine roles.
In Arabic culture, the term mukhannathun (“men who resemble women”) is used to describe male crossdressers and male-to-female transgendered people. They are mentioned briefly in the Koran; Mohammed banishes one for their immorality, but does not kill them because they were devout. In general, Mohammed condemned their behavior as immoral; he also condemned women who behaved like men. Later scholars such as Al-Kirmani, Al-Ayni, and Ibn Hajar drew distinctions between men who were “naturally” effeminate (who were blameless) and men who put on artificial airs of femininity. However, Al-Ayni and Ibn Hajar stated that naturally effeminate men must try not to behave in such a way, and if they continued after being warned, they should be condemned. In several modern Muslim countries, such as Iran and Egypt, gender reassignment surgery is offered freely as an alternative to engaging in homosexuality, which is considered worse.
The importance of sex is a constant in human society. Some people have a tendency to see the past as being austere and clinical, but that’s not always the case. There’s preserved graffiti from Pompeii that’s just as graphic, vulgar and frank as the kind of stuff you’d find on a bathroom wall (or online message board) today. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of mankind’s oldest recorded stories, sexual intercourse (with a priestess of a sex goddess, no less) is used to turn a wild man “civilized”. Sexual mores of all kinds and configurations can be found throughout human history.
It comes to a surprise to some people to find out how common were in the ancient world. With the stigma instituted by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), it’s easy to forget that a majority of Europe in ancient times were incredibly open and accepting about homosexual acts. Although in general it is important to note that these “homosexual acts” were more akin to a form of pervasive bisexuality. “Exclusivity” was rare (declarations of both “men only” and “women only” were found on the walls at Pompeii), but the core concept of limiting oneself to a single sex was apparently unusual and worth noting.
Not all homosexuality was treated equally. The Romans, for example, were very fond of homosexuality where a superior dominates an inferior, but openly contemptuous of the reverse. It was considered shameful to be penetrated, and this particular accusation dogged Julius Caesar himself for years (his assumed lover was King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, adding a political layer as well). A similar value set was used by the Assyrians, who thought it praiseworthy and beneficial to penetrate, but shameful to be penetrated. The Norse took this a step further, suggesting that homosexuality was acceptable only as rape (i.e. to humiliate a defeated enemy) – but in this form, it was relatively common. Similarly, the Romans indicated that rape-after-defeat was a common fear for both men and women, whether in wartime or as the result of banditry.
One form of this “aggressive homosexuality” mindset common throughout the world was the pairing of an older man with a young boy. This was practiced by the Romans, the Greeks (paiderastia), the Japanese (shudo), the Iranians (bacha bazi) and the Mayans (motivated by the god Chin), along with many other smaller cultures such as the Siwan people of western Egypt or the Keraki of Oceania. In addition to sex, such relationships also tended to have a “grooming” component, where the older male would lavish favors and niceties upon the younger.
However, more equal forms of homosexuality can be found throughout the world, as well. An ancient law code of the Hittite peoples outlaws incest (including father-son), but makes no proscription on any other form of homosexuality, suggesting that it was at least accepted. Homosexual relationships were documented among the Celts by historians of the age. Diodorus Siculus recorded this: “Although their wives are comely, they have very little to do with them, but rage with lust, in outlandish fashion, for the embraces of males.” Most sources of the time suggested that such relationships were relatively casual and free, without any sort of superior-inferior relationship. Among the Harari and Kemant people of Ethiopia, male homosexuality has been documented in both adult-paired and pedagogic relationships.
Female homosexuality tends to be mostly equal, but is rarer. Ford & Beach’s “Patterns of Sexual Behavior” identifies it amongst the Aranda of Australia and the Mbundu, Nama, Azande and Dahomeans of Africa. As an exception, the historian Plutarch alleged that the women of Sparta forged pedagogic lesbian relationships similar to those forged by Greek men.
Each society has its own views about , whether homosexually or heterosexually. Furthermore, this ties into views about monogamy versus “open relationships”: whether sex was something sacred between two linked partners, or something more akin to a passing fancy. As with homosexuality, the spread of the Abrahamic religions standardized a contempt for extra-marital sex and adultery that was not always present before it.
In ancient Egypt, adultery was considered a serious crime. However, there was no judgment about pre-marital sex, meaning that unmarried men and women could engage in sex as they pleased without stigma. Marriage itself was more an issue of property sharing than sacred bonds; divorce was feasible, but complicated in terms of who got what.
In the mythic Gaelic story of Cu Chulainn, the titular hero is married to Emer, whose hand he won in a complex game of riddles. However, he has many affairs outside of their marriage that she does not seem to mind (apart from one example that is notable as her “only jealousy”). The reverse is also true, with Cu Chulainn’s archnemesis Queen Medb telling her husband that she intends to have many lovers outside their marriage, which he accepts. This, along with the accounts of contemporaries, suggests that monogamy is not as important to Celtic culture as it is to others. The historian Siculus stated that young Celtic men would offer themselves sexually and openly to visitors, and be offended if their advances were rebuffed.
A comparison was made between the Celtic open views and Roman “closed” views on sexuality, as reported by Cassius Dio: “a very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.””
In contrast with the Celts, the Germanic peoples were recorded by Tacitus as being monogamous. In this regard he stated that they were “almost alone among barbarians”, which gives us contextual clues about open relationships in other cultures of the ancient world. Adultery was also punished severely, bearing a heavy stigma for both men and women.
The Mosuo people, described earlier in this chapter, have open relationships with no particular attachment behind them. These “walking marriages” are based on mutual attraction, which leads to the man visiting the woman at night and then leaving in the morning. There is no “slut shaming” for men or women; either may have as many partners as they wish, although many do settle with only one at a time. The child is always raised among the mother’s household; the father is respected for his contribution, so to speak, but his role in the child’s life is relatively small, and if the father is not known it is not a source of major stigma.
According to Ford & Beach’s Patterns of Sexual Behavior, the Oceanic Trobianders and Kurtatchi, as well as the Lisu of southern China, had “lovemaking…as spontaneous on the part of one sex as of the other”. In some other cultures, such as the Polynesian Maori or the Mataco of South America, women generally initiated sexual encounters, while in many cultures women are discouraged from doing so.
A practice called nikah ijtimah (“combined marriage”) existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, as reported in a Muslim hadith. A woman would arrange for a sexual tryst with “less than ten” men at one time. If she became pregnant, after she gave birth she would call for all her partners. Of her partners, she would name the one she preferred, and that partner would be considered the father of the child. He could not refuse this position. This was outlawed by Muslim law.
Many cultures practiced (or still practice) polygyny, which is the marriage of one man to multiple women. This was practiced in India, among Muslims, in Myanmar, in China, in Tibet, in Egypt, in Kenya, and so on. The opposite of polygyny is polyandry, where one woman would marry multiple men. This was also common in many regions and amongst many peoples, including the Masaai of Kenya, the Central Asian Ye-Tai, in Bhutan, around the Great Lakes of Central Africa, among the Sherpa people of Nepal, and so on. In many cases marriages of both types were done for practical purposes, such as keeping family inheritance together. However, several polygynous cultures had hostile reactions to the concept of polyandry, indicating (among other things) that there was a gender inequality component to be found as well.
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were sexually defined by two major things: firstly, a Germanic-style disgust of sex outside of marriage, and secondly, a contempt for homosexuality and other “deviant” forms of behavior. For this reason, many cultures who adopted Abrahamic religions lost their old traditions and ways and came to accept these new values. Christianity, especially, glorified chastity as a virtue in its own right, often demonizing sexuality even within marriage as being tainted by original sin. In contrast to these, Hinduism states that the pursuit of sensual pleasures (kama) is as good and valuable alongside living morally (dharma) and self-actualization (moksha). Marital fidelity is still considered important, and the status of women is less than equal, but sexuality is not demonized in the same way.
Next, we come to – although we briefly forayed into the issue when discussing pederastic homosexual relationships. Different cultures have radically different ideas about the proper age of adulthood and age of consent, and differences about that age provides a sticking point for cross-cultural interactions even today. Some cultures treated puberty as the defining point for consent, including the Romans, Slavs, Indians and most of medieval Europe. However, there are exceptions to this norm.
The Germanic peoples of the Iron Age were recorded as delaying sex until their twenties. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that “The youths partake late of the pleasures of love, and hence pass the age of puberty unexhausted: nor are the virgins hurried into marriage; the same maturity, the same full growth is required”. Pre-marital sex was strongly condemned, as was extra-marital sex, meaning that these late marriages were the only “acceptable” sexual activity for a Germanic individual.
While puberty was the point of the legal age of consent in medieval Europe, in effect this was only practiced by noble families (who arranged marriages for political purposes). Among commoners, marriages are recorded at older ages. In 14th and 15th century England, women and men married at between 18 and 22 years, and the age of the partners was similar. The average age rose in the 16th century – 25 for women, and 27 for men. Urban people are recorded as marrying slightly later than rural people. The English patterns were copied in the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) and Lowland Scotland. By the Elizabethan Era, medical journals stated that consummation before age 18 was harmful to both men and women. As a sidenote, Juliet’s young age in Romeo & Juliet was intentionally designed to be an example of the harmful folly of youth, which makes it ironic that some people see it as simply being a norm of the times.
The final topic is that of . Direct incest between immediate family members (“nuclear incest” in modern parlance) was almost always condemned, regardless of the culture. Relationships between cousins, however, were more common – especially among royalty and nobility, who had strong reasons to keep ties between family lines.
The concept of xwēdōdah, originating in the Zoroastrian religion of Iran, is not only a toleration of nuclear incest but a ringing endorsement of it. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, marriage between father and daughter, mother and son, or siblings was considered a pious action. It is described throughout early Iranian history; for example, the 3rd century priest Kartir describes roaming the country performing such marriages. Legal texts would describe the act as being beneficial for rulers and nobles, as it allowed inheritance to stay in the family, and allowed women to be controlled without being sent off to another patrilineal family group. However, it must be noted that the act had a religious and societal element that was just as strong – the act of incest itself was considered good, even if it produced no children.
Xwēdōdah has origins in the Zoroastrian creation myth, which states it was designed by Ahura Mazda (the religion’s sole God) to “connect and guide” humans through their existence. In some models, Ahura Mazda mated with his mother to produce the sun and his sister to produce the moon. Other texts provide similar examples, but the core concept of Ahura Mazda designing, and partaking in, nuclear incest is a common thread. In many Zoroastrian texts, xwēdōdah is described as having a “cleansing” effect, being able to wash away certain sins. Perhaps ironically to modern eyes, one of the sins that cannot be washed away is anal intercourse, which is seen as a filthy and debauched act. It is worth noting that the homosexual pederastic practice of bacha bazi only showed up in Iran long after Zoroastrianism had become marginalized in importance.
Among the Pharaohs of Egypt, incest was relatively common, and marriages between immediate family – including polygamous marriages – were possible. This was done because the royal family of Egypt saw itself as divine in nature, and thus endogamous relationships were necessary to preserve their divinity. Like the Zoroastrian model, this belief was based on the actions of the Egyptian gods, and the mortal desire to carry on their model. When Egypt was taken over by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, the practice of incest was eventually continued, although for different, more practical reasons. Such cases show up in the twilight years of the dynasty’s power, as the Ptolemaic family was trying to hold onto their land and power. In both cases, the prevalence of incest among the royal family did not indicate any level of incest among the common people.
A similar royal model existed among the Inca. Like the Egyptians, the Inca believed their royal family was divine in nature. In the later years of the Incan Empire, it was believed that only a pairing of a fully-blooded brother and sister could produce a true royal heir. In one case, a civil war erupted between two claimants: one the product of the previous king and his sister, and the other borne of a non-royal woman. The second claimant was Atahualpa, who would win the throne only to be confronted by the Spanish conquest of Francisco Pizarro. As such, he was the last Incan ruler.
Once we have laid out a culture and the traits it consists of, the last logical step is connecting that culture to other cultures to form a greater world. This is what is called cultural exchange. Culture spreads by two main vectors. The first vector is , being carried naturally as a culture expands and spreads. The descendants of a culture spread to different regions, carrying their traditions with them, but evolving in different ways. This is, for example, why there were Celtic nations across Europe, split into sub-groups such as the Britons, Gauls, and Iberians. Remember that cultural development has its roots in community; when communities are separated from each other, they grow in different ways. Expansion requires either a “blank slate”, where immigrants inhabit an empty territory, or it requires the existing population to be driven out. This latter scenario was the case in ancient Japan; the indigenous Emishi and Ainu people were driven out and the victorious Yamato people took over their lands flat-out, spreading their own cultural values as they did.
The second vector is . This is when a culture convinces another culture to adopt its traditions, either through conquest and enforcement or more indirect influence. There are many examples of conquest-based assimilation. Empires such as the Romans, Arabs and Chinese each had their own process (Romanization, Arabization, and Sinicization, respectively). Their own values were prioritized; outsiders who adhered were rewarded, while outsiders who stayed true to their own traditions were punished. In 19th century America, native peoples were assimilated through policies and programs such as the Native Boarding Schools, designed to turn native children into “Americanized” adults.
Sometimes this could be reversed; Crusading Franks in the 12th century conquered parts of the Holy Land, establishing the so-called Crusader States. Their children, who retained Frankish tradition but were raised among Arabs, were called Poulains, meaning “foals”. Poulains were noted by several contemporary writers (including James of Vitry and Fulcher of Charles) to have adopted many Arabic customs, such as regular bathing and local fashions, which earned them confusion or scorn from newly arrived European immigrants. The Romans made a regular habit of adopting useful ideas from conquered people, whether military, domestic, or artistic. In this way, conquest and invasion could be a two-way street of influential ideas. The Mongols conquered China under Genghis Khan, but under his descendant Kublai Khan the Mongols partially assimilated into Chinese culture, trading their nomadic ways for civilized luxuries.
Indirect influence, on the other hand, is dependent more on subtle exchange of ideas, such as frequent trading or intermarriage. Sicily in the 11th through 13th century is an example of many cultures mixing relatively peacefully; it was controlled by Normans (French-speaking Norse people), and populated with a mix of Orthodox Greek citizens and more recent Muslim Arab settlers. Somehow, despite all these cultures and three major religions, the Normans held it together with tolerant policies and thoughtful interactions. The resulting mix was known as the Norman-Arab-Byzantine Culture.
Cultural expansion creates “cousin cultures” – cultures that differ from their source culture, but still have things in common. Cultural assimilation creates cultures that have a set of original traits either influenced or overwhelmed by other cultures. So how do we discuss the finer mechanics?
is a good place to start. Language is the medium by which ideas are transmitted, and that includes values, rituals and beliefs. As a result, exchange between different regions and groups of people is easier when they have a common language. Language and communication also humanize people; a human being that cannot be communicated with was often perceived as an animal. The term “barbarian” originates from ancient Greek, where it was used to refer to anyone who did not speak Greek. It was based on the term “barbar”, which, in several Indo-European languages, referred to stammering or unintelligible speech. Therefore, a “barbarian” was anyone whose speech was not understandable, and thus who could not be humanized. Without linguistic connection or translation, cultural exchange is impossible.
Modern linguistics groups languages into families, which share common roots and therefore certain structures. For example, the Romance languages refers to Latin-derived languages such as French, Spanish and Italian. However, the Romance languages are only part of a larger linguistic family, the Indo-European family, which covers everything from Europe to Russia to Iran to India. The common ancestor of all these languages is “Proto-Indo-European”, which dates back to the end of the Stone Age. Another major language family is the Afro-Asiatic family, which covers north Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Afro-Asiatic cultures include Arabic, Hausa and Oromo, among many others. There are many cultures across the islands of southeast Asia (Indonesia and the Philippines), but most of these cultures fall into the shared roots of the Austronesian family – as does the culture of Madagascar, which was partially colonized by far-reaching Polynesian immigrants.
If shared language represents a kind of unity, then differing languages are a barrier that must be overcome to create communication between cultures. In many cases, a lingua franca, or common language, is used across multiple regions to allow for intermediary communications. For example, in the medieval Mediterranean region, Italian was a common lingua franca spoken as a second language by many Greeks, Arabs, Turks and other regional peoples. This allowed these peoples to communicate with each other while maintaining their own linguistic traditions. Other examples of this include the Sogdian language in central Asia, Malay in southeast Asia, and Hausa in west Africa.
Developing a common language is also a key component of cultural assimilation. Within the Roman Empire, Latin (the language of the core territories) was used as a common official language in outer areas. These regions had populations who spoke their own language, but who also spoke Latin in order to communicate with their rulers. Other examples of this include Nahuatl in the Aztec Empire, Amharic in Ethiopia, and languages such as English, French and Spanish in their far-flung colonies.
is another element that can bind cultures together. Religious unity generally comes in two forms. The first form is when the dominant religion of a given culture can be shared with other cultures. In early history, this was accomplished through either conquest or immigration. Overarching regional religions would be carried by migrant peoples as they settled or invaded new regions, and those religious tenets would tie them to their ancestral home.
Widespread religious unity became increasingly common with the emergence of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, which appealed to a wide range of people instead of being “region-specific”. Such religions introduced the concept of missionaries – individuals who converted other cultures through relatively peaceful means without the need for total conquest and assimilation. There were also more earthly aspects to conversion: Christianity and Islam required obedience to a larger earthly authority, such as the Catholic Pope or the Caliphs of Islam. Islam in particular also required that believers make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives.
In some cases, regions that became isolated would develop or maintain their own traditions; the Christian kingdoms of Ethiopia maintained Miaphysite beliefs even as the rest of the Christian world was divided between Catholic and Orthodox. In Iran, a group of Nestorian Christian communities formed the “Church of the East”. Separated from both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, they pushed Christian beliefs into India, China and even Mongolia. Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke was a Nestorian Christian, following his mother’s beliefs, and under his rule Nestorianism became the primary religion of the Empire. The activities of the Nestorian church led to legends being told in Europe about “Prester John”, a king said to rule a far-off Christian empire.
In the second form, the local religion of an area can share common ancestors with other religions, creating recognizable patterns in their myths and legends. The Proto-Indo-European culture, mentioned earlier as a common language root, also served as a religious root for many cultures. Archetypes like “Sky Father” and “Goddess of Dawn” provide the roots for many pantheons – compare the Indo-European Perkwunos to the Vedic Parjanya or the Lithuanian Perkunas. When the Greeks and Romans encountered other peoples, they often characterized their deities in terms of their own religions, such as “the Scythian Ares”. This is obviously looser than the first form, but it can create understandable parallels between cultural groups.
A is often necessary to bring together disparate groups with a shared culture. In many ways, cultural identity is identified as much by what you aren’t as by what you are. The rise of nationalism in the 19th century was characterized most prominently by opposition to foreign rule. This was true of the European peoples subjugated by the Ottomans or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was also true of displaced African slaves forced to develop a new “Black” identity, and it was true of the many regions under European colonial control. Long before those, though, there were examples of cultures grouping together with “cousins” as the result of outside interference (and often dissolving again once the threat had passed).
The disparate city-states of ancient Greece had different governments and lived separately from each other, but they were united by language and tradition. This meant that when Greece was threatened by Iran during the Greco-Persian Wars, these Greek states clung together against the outsider. Once the threat had passed, the Greek states lost their sense of unity. In the later Peloponnesian War, which pitted an Athenian-led alliance against a Spartan-led alliance, the Spartan side even accepted assistance from Iran. In many ways, the Peloponnesian conflicts were even more gruesome and destructive than the Greco-Persian conflict was.
The Gallic people came together against the invasions of Rome, specifically under Julius Caesar. The Gauls came together under Vercingetorix, leader of the Arverni tribe. However, there were two factors that complicated the Gallic unity. Firstly, Vercingetorix’s father Celtillus had been executed previously for attempting to control all of Gaul. This distaste for unity fed into the second factor, which was internal strife that Caesar intentionally exploited in order to weaken the Gallic alliance. The Aedui, for example, were a Gallic people who had joined the alliance, but previously had a very pro-Roman stance. Once the war was over, the Aedui resumed their role as Roman allies.
Another enemy of Rome was the Germanic hero Arminius. Arminius was originally an auxiliary officer attached to a Roman unit, and during that time he learned their tactics and methods. He left Roman service to lead his people, the Cherusci, against the Romans. Marshaling the aid of five other tribes, he defeated the Romans soundly at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. However, their confederation represented only about 10% of the Germanic peoples, and once the Romans had been removed he found himself warring with other Germans as often as he did the Romans. Finally, he was assassinated by members of his own tribe - like Celtillus, the reason was that he allegedly sought too much power and dominion over his own people.
One notable thing about the numerous wars between European settlers and the many Native American peoples is that there are relatively few instances of a “united native front”. Most wars, especially involving the USA, were engaged against one or two tribes at a time, with other native peoples joining either the natives or the whites as they saw fit. One of the exceptions was Pontiac’s War in 1763, wherein around 3500 warriors from 14 tribes gathered together to attempt to drive out the British. The impetus was a weakening of French power in North America; before, the Europeans had to negotiate with native tribes to maintain their own careful balance of power. Tribes would ally with European powers on and off, maintaining a relatively mercenary relationship with the European powers.
After the French were effectively driven out, the British had less competition, and thus less reason to desire the cooperation of the native peoples. Because of this, they often stopped honoring treaties altogether. They also colonized land much more forcefully than the French, who were content merely to trade. For this reason, native peoples in the Great Lakes region rose up against the British in a combined attempt to drive them out. While the war ended in a truce, the Native peoples saw it as a minor victory because the British government was forced to acknowledge them officially, granting them legislative rights. But later native resistance would lack the unity of Pontiac’s War; even the rare exception, like the Yakima War of 1855-88, had some native peoples allied with American forces.
Religion is the means by which human beings attempt to explain the things that they can’t explain normally. It is how they explain where things came from, it is how they explain where things go, and it is how they give meaning or purpose to their lives. As a result, religion plays a large role in motivating and creating many aspects of cultural development.
Note, too, that religion affects almost every aspect of a culture in some way, from art to morality to identity. For this reason, this chapter is going to focus purely on the aspects that are “singularly” religious, such as mythology, cosmology and ritual.
At the head of most spiritual systems are gods, powerful beings who affect the world as a whole. Humans (i.e. mortals) generally must submit to these beings to receive their blessing and protection. Gods also dictate proper behavior for their worshipers and provide them with a structure by which to shape their lives.
religions tend to be built around the idea of a singular God as an absolute creator, often infallible and all-knowing. This is true of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) originating in the Middle East, as well as the Sikhism of northern India. The Sikh God, Ik Onkar, is described as formless (nirankar), omnipresent (sarav viāpak) and beyond time and space (akaal purkh). Ik Onkar cannot be known by physical senses, but can be connected to by meditation and spiritual purification. In Abrahamic religions, God is depicted as all-knowing in addition to other things; this is what grants him the moral authority to determine what is right and wrong. In Deuteronomy 29:19, it is stated that a person attempting to follow their own moral compass rather than God’s instructions will bring disaster upon themselves. While such threats are common in other religions, monotheism in particular prefers the idea of a lone, infallible deity who is the source of all proper morality.
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